Eliminating FGM: The Embera Tribe's Story

Wednesday, April 19, 2017 - 16:00

Latin America is close to eradicating a harmful practice that remains widespread in Africa and the Middle East. Female genital mutilation or FGM is a cultural practice that affects approximately 200 million girls around the world. This painful procedure is not for medical reasons and is practiced due to myths about modesty and virginity that have been ingrained into various cultures. FGM is mainly practiced in Africa and the Middle East, but it remains prevalent in the Embera tribe in Colombia1.

An awareness campaign about the issue was started by the Colombian government and the United Nations Population Fund, after a young Embera baby died due to complications with the procedure. The doctor who tried to save the baby reported the incident, sending shockwaves through the Embera tribe and all of Colombia. The practice, which is supposed to prevent female promiscuity, is so surrounded by a veil of secrecy that men and women in the culture did not even know it was occurring2.

Since the start of the awareness campaign, the Embera community has worked with the UN and other international organizations to learn about the issue and discuss possible solutions. They have been developing ways to reduce the mortality rate of girls who received the procedure. The UN Population Fund, International Organization for Migration and UN Women encouraged the tribe to have an open discussion about the unintended consequences of this cultural practice, allowing the Embera tribe to decide for themselves whether to abandon it. The tribal leaders asked the UN to help them uncover the history and origin of the tradition. They found that the tradition was only a couple of centuries old, not a long-standing cultural practice of the tribe. African slaves brought the practice to Colombia during Spanish colonial rule. This information was a leading reason to why in 2012 the tribe decided to abandon the practice altogether by signing an agreement to ban the procedure3.

The decision to abandon the practice was a victory not just for human rights advocates, but also for indigenous rights. It was a monumental occasion when the tribe was able to band together to put a harmful tradition to rest in order to protect future generations of women from the terrible effects. The UN Population Fund stated that they had not expected that the tribe would totally forego the symbolism of the procedure and was prepared to suggest a replacement ceremony or practice to maintain this in some way4. Still, it takes time for the practice to be entirely eliminated among the over 250,000 Embera tribe members. The campaign to end the practice has not reached the entirety of the Embera population and there were four deaths due to FGM in 2014 alone5. There are still signs of progress, such as no deaths from FGM this past year. Embera leaders have stated that the practice has been entirely eradicated in two reserves in Risaralda. There have also been reports that since the indigenous women learned of their rights through the FGM awareness campaign, they have been compelled to bring light to other issues women face in their community. The community hopes to fully eradicate the practice from all members of the Embera tribe and thus in Latin America as a whole by 2030.

Though Latin America has been successful in targeting and combating FGM, the cutting of women remains a widespread global human rights issue. According to the the UN, the practice can be found in over 30 countries and is performed on girls between infancy and early adulthood. At the current rate, 15 million additional girls between ages 15 and 19 will be cut by 2030. The immediate consequences of this procedure include pain, hemorrhaging, infections, shock, or even death. The long term consequences for women often include any combination of urinary, vaginal, and menstrual problems, loss of sexual pleasure, complications with childbirth, and wide ranging psychological problems. In countries such as Egypt, Sudan and Sierra Leone, over 80% of females aged 15-49 have received the procedure. Despite the secrecy and taboo nature of this topic, it remains prevalent in the 21st century. Even though Latin America has been able to effectively combat this issue, it is important to look at female genital mutilation as a global issue in which awareness plays a large part in combating the problem6.

 


References:

1)Scott, L. (2016, February 09). A silent epidemic: The fight to end female genital mutilation in Colombia. Retrieved March 13, 2017, from http://www.unfpa.org/news/silent-epidemic-fight-end-female-genital-mutil...

2) Moloney, A. (2015, February 06). Colombia's Embera tribe hopes to eradicate FGM by 2030. Retrieved March 13, 2017, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-girls-fgm-idUSKBN0LA2FX20150206

3)Scott, L. (2016, February 09). A silent epidemic: The fight to end female genital mutilation in Colombia. Retrieved March 13, 2017, from http://www.unfpa.org/news/silent-epidemic-fight-end-female-genital-mutil...

4) Liévano, A. B. (n.d.). UNFPA and Embera Wera - ending female genital mutilation - Colombian tribe renounce female genital mutilation: Embera-Chami stop female circumcisions. Retrieved March 13, 2017, from http://www.wewomen.com/key-debates/ending-female-genital-mutilation-colo...

5) Scott, L. (2016, February 09). A silent epidemic: The fight to end female genital mutilation in Colombia. Retrieved March 13, 2017, from http://www.unfpa.org/news/silent-epidemic-fight-end-female-genital-mutil...

6) Liévano, A. B. (n.d.). UNFPA and Embera Wera - ending female genital mutilation - Colombian tribe renounce female genital mutilation: Embera-Chami stop female circumcisions. Retrieved March 13, 2017, from http://www.wewomen.com/key-debates/ending-female-genital-mutilation-colo...

About Author(s)

Katherine Andrews
Katherine Andrews is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science with certificates in Arabic and Latin American Studies. She spent her last semester studying in Morocco and has done research with CLAS in Costa Rica. Her focus is on gender and sexuality issues in the Middle East and in Latin America.